Democracy and a subservient military

The elections in Pakistan are done and it looks like it will soon have a civilian Prime Minister. I am not too sure how the development will affect Musharaff (there are some stories floating around which say he might have to flee Pakistan), but that is not what this is about.

Pakistan is one of the many countries in this part of the world which has had an off-and-on relationship with democracy. There has been a continuous stream of military dictators who have lead coups in the ‘wider public interest’ or for the ‘greater good’, knowing fully well, that they are interested in neither. Most reasonably read Indians (I for sure) have never been comfortable with this. The reasoning is very simple – how can you trust any person who has taken over the reins of the country by stabbing its elected leader in the back? Our governments are more pragmatic, though (they have shown this by dealing with many military governments, Pakistan’s being just one of them. Morality, after all, has no place in diplomacy). Other examples of countries in the immediate vicinity with a military hand in government include Burma (which definitely tops the scale), Bangladesh and Thailand.

These countries can learn an important lesson from India in how to keep the military firmly under civilian control. This is not to say that India is some kind of utopian society where all things are hunky dory. After all we had our very own short-lived ’emergency’ imposed by Indira Gandhi in the 1970s which was an absolute mockery of the constitution. The Congress Party has never really been forgiven for this in spite of all the apologies it has tendered over the years. It will remain a black chapter in the history of India, as it should, and act as a guide to future generations as to what should not be done in a democracy.

A military interference in government usually occurs as an attempt to control what is seen as a situation (security, economic…) gone ‘out of control’, or to ‘fix’ rampant corruption by politicians in power. The funny thing is, gullible people swallow it at face value, sometimes rationalizing the coup by comparing pre and post coup situations. Whatever be the reasons offered, be it national security, or anything else, such an interference is unacceptable. The duties of a military are very precise. Its mandate is the protection of the country from external aggression. It can be used to deal with natural disasters or internal aggression, but special forces designed specifically for that purpose might be more suitable.

What a military is not supposed to do is run the government. That is the function of elected leaders, regardless of how corrupt they are. Things become a little murky in what-if scenarios like what if politicians sellout to foreign interests, or what if they run their own draconian regime, and I admit my views are ambivalent in such cases. But history is proof that people have more reasons to worry about errant military regimes than about scenarios where the military are the good guys protecting the country from their own elected leaders.

A military regime is not healthy for a country, its people or its politicians. You have politicians assassinated, hanged, jailed or exiled by military governments for a multitude of reasons, including corruption. All you have to do is look at Pakistan, Bangladesh and Thailand to figure out what that means. Freedom of expression is a big casualty of military rule. People showing dissent against the government are liable to be targeted and tortured as traitors. What is cleanly forgotten in this is the fact that a nation and its government (even a military one) are two separate entities. A government represents the nation. That does not mean that it is some sacred entity that cannot be questioned or criticized. But that is how it works. Along with suspension of human rights, even logic is given the go by.

In spite of so many pitfalls, why is it that countries still tolerate such regimes is beyond me. One reason might be the policies of the ‘champion of democracy as long as its national interest is not affected’ – the United States’ tacit support to such regimes (but you cannot blame the US for every thing that goes wrong, can you?). Or maybe people have simply lost hope in their ability to change things. If that is the case, then, India with all its blemishes and stupidities still offers some valuable lessons.

The Indian military has always been under civilian control (in spite of Indira Gandhi’s fears during the emergency). And its politicians have always had to answer to the people to such a degree that their very careers depends on people’s perception of their work. It has to be said that it is to the credit of the military that unlike forces of some neighboring countries it has always respected the will of the people and its generals and officers have more or less towed the government line on issues pertaining to national security. When they do comment out of turn, governments do not have a problem correcting them.

What needs to understood by aspiring democracies is that militaries exist to serve the nation. It is not the other way round. The military should respect its limits and should not leave the barracks unless ordered to do so by the representatives of the people. Even the great political theorist Kautilya ranks the military third in the list of constituents of a state – behind the state machinery and people, and the state treasury. Why after the treasury? – The army is dependent on finance; in the absence of resources, a (disaffected) army goes over to the enemy or even kills the king. (The Arthashastra).

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  • diosia  On March 7, 2008 at 7:49 am

    >>>…that militaries exist to serve the nation. It is not the other way round. >>>>
    AMEN, brother!

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